Camping & Hiking Storage & Hiding

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail – Last Year’s Trek!

I was around less this past year because I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT), and this year won’t be much different since I will be hiking southbound (SOBO) on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) starting in July.

I have received many questions about the AT hike, and I will answer some of them in this article, but I’m sure there may be more questions. Don’t hesitate to reach out and ask at or leave them in the comments section of this article. I will answer them as quickly as possible if I’m not hiking.


Appalachian Trail across the Roans in TN
The Roans – TN

The Appalachian Trail is a footpath that follows the spine of the Appalachians up the East Coast. This is one of the oldest mountain chains in the world, and if you hike all 2,200 miles, you have hiked the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest about 16 times.

Terrain and Georgraphy vary along this trail as you start in the rugged mountains of Georgia, climb through the hardwood forests and open balds of North Carolina, and amble on through the rolling forested balds of TN and NC while also passing through the high Smokey Mountains that make their own often brutally cold weather.

After leaving WV, you will continue through the mid-Atlantic states of PA and NJ, with their beautiful and notoriously rocky footpaths, before transitioning to the glacier-scarred forests of the New England States—NY, CT, and MA.

Vermont is the beginning of the end as you finish up the final three states – VT, NH, and ME. This is also the most difficult section of the trail and some of the most rewarding, as you hike above treeline through the White Mountains, with their rugged granite climbs and expansive views.

Trail Community

Appalachian Trail Hikers hanging out
Appalachian Trail Thru-hikers – NC

The thru-hiker trail community forms quickly once you begin your hike. Many hikers group into “Tramilies (trail families),” and the camaraderie between hikers and “tramilies” can be found throughout your whole hike. People bonding through adversity and need is powerful; many hikers you meet on the hike will become lifelong friends.

The Appalachian Trail also has a vast network of towns, trail angels, and businesses that support the hiker community. It is amazing how many people support hikers because they enjoy being part of the community and the thru-hiking experience.

I did not have a tramily, but instead chose to hike with different people and tramilies as I made my way north. The people I hiked with over days or weeks varied in age from 17 to 67 and were both male and female. I still keep in touch with many of them and probably will for years to come.


The southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is Springer Mountain in Amicalola State Park, about an hour and a half outside of Atlanta, GA, in the southern Appalachian Mountains. My brother was kind enough to take me to the State Park to register and then drove me up to the trailhead about a mile from the southern terminus.

After leaving Springer Mountain, the trail travels 2,198.4 miles north to its northern terminus in Maine on the summit of Mt. Katahdin. Throughout the journey, the trail travels through 14 states, including Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

The Appalachian Trail is one of the world’s longest “hiking only” footpaths, maintained and overseen by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and a series of 31 hiking clubs and volunteers.


There are varied estimates on the number of thru-hikers who start the AT each year, but you will generally hear about 3,000-4,000 hikers start the trail. It is estimated that of these starters, about 20%- 30% finish a thru-hike. Both the number of people that start and the number that finish increases each year.

Because the majority of these northbound hikers start in March and April, I started in February, even though it was still very cold. I hoped to avoid crowds of hikers and get out ahead of the pack, which would probably not thin out significantly until southern Virginia.


Porcuipine beside the Appalachian Trail in New Jersey
Porcuipine – NJ

Wildlife generates many questions and concerns, the majority of which involve bears. They were not a big concern for me. I’ve backpacked over 30,000 miles since I was 18 years old, and I respect bears, but I have rarely had a negative encounter with either black bears or grizzlies.

In all those miles of hiking, I have seen one mountain lion in Oregon who wanted nothing to do with me and two silent wolves in New Mexico and Minnesota. I’m not naive, though. I know they have all probably seen me hundreds of times, so I’m always very alert as I travel.


“Do you carry a gun?” This is probably the number one question I get asked, and it always seems to be by a solo male that I meet along the trails. So far, my answer has always been YES. Do I really carry one? Hmmm…

I will say this: I always carry my Gerber knife and Bear Spray in Grizzly territory. I keep both the knife and spray easily accessible.

When camping, I keep my protection close. If there are bear lockers, poles, lines, etc., I use those, and I also don’t eat where I sleep. This is not common since most hikers like to make dinner when they stop for the night, but I have developed the habit of stopping to eat a couple of hours before I stop to camp. This minimizes food odors around camp.


Campsite above the NOC in NC
Camp above the NOC – NC

Backpacking and camping gear have changed a lot over the years. Years ago, I carried my five-pound backpack with its aluminum frame and five-pound two-person tent. In 1998, I purchased my first internal frame Dana Designs backpack and have not looked back.

Dana Designs was purchased by Mystery Ranch, which still makes some of the most durable, high-quality backpacks on the market. They also make very good Assault backpacks if you’re interested.

Now, I buy lightweight equipment from small cottage companies. This allows me to hike longer and further while having a more enjoyable hike. You will see that my gear has not changed much over the last several years. Much of the gear I used on this hike is similar to the gear I used on my Benton Mackaye Trail hike several years ago.


On my AT thru-hike, I used two shelters. For the first half of the hike from GA to WV, I used a Big Agnes One-Person Tigerwall tent. Big Agnes makes the tents I often use when I use semi-free-standing or free-standing tents. The Tigerwall is semi-freestanding and lightweight, but my favorite tent is the free-standing Big Agnes Copper Spur if I do a section hike with less mileage.


The backpack I use changes with distance and weight; over the years, I have tried just about every backpack on the market. Keeping my weight lower has become more important as I’ve gotten older. I use frameless backpacks for very short hikes, but currently, my backpack of choice is the ULA circuit made by ULA Adventure Equipment out of Utah.

ULA makes a great backpack that balances weight and durability well. Recently, I upgraded to their Circuit backpack made from Ultra fabric because it is highly water resistant. I prefer not to carry a pack cover, and it is also important that my gear stays dry in wet conditions.

Sleep System

The biggest change to my sleep system over the last 8 years is that I have begun using a Down quilt instead of a Down sleeping bag. I am a very active sleeper and also a side sleeper. A quilt gives me more room to move and flexibility in temperature variations.

Many people are concerned about using Down since it loses its insulation qualities if it gets wet, but in 30 years, I have never had an issue in even severe storms as long as I use a proper shelter.

If it falls below freezing, I often switch to a sleeping bag because I don’t want gaps when I flip back and forth at night. However, I have often been on trips where temperatures fall into the twenties. I usually add clothing layers in these instances, so these gaps are not a big deal.

On this trip, I started with a 15-degree Katabatic Flex Quilt and added a second summer quilt in Hot Springs, NC, because it was so cold. I switched to my Katabatics 30-degree quilt in Connecticut and used it the rest of the way to Mt. Katahdin.

My sleeping pad is a Sea-to-Summit X-Lite pad, and this is the one thing I should have changed. I should have carried my X-Therm winter pad until I reached southern Virginia. Many people don’t think their sleeping bags or quilts are warm enough, but improper sleeping pads often make them cold. A sleeping pad’s R-value is important.


Camping at night on the Benton Mackaye Trail
Nighttime Camp – NC

The Appalachian Trail has a series of shelters every 8-12 miles. These range from 3-sided lean-tos with raised floors to double-decker enclosed cabins. There are also designated campsites, and in the White Mountains, there are full-service huts owned by the AMC, which cost about $120/night. In other words, you have options.

Many hikers choose to stay in hostels located along the trails, and as the number of hostels increases, fewer people are camping.

I chose to stay in my tent if I was not in town resupplying. Most of my tent sites were out of sight of the trail in more stealthy locations. This was mostly because I am a very light sleeper, and shelters are loud and not overly clean. Mice were often also an issue, and there were numerous norovirus outbreaks along the trail.

Due to the number of hikers, designated campsites were often overused, resulting in dirt pads that gathered water. They also attracted wildlife looking for food and trash. I often did not stay in established campsites; I always practiced Leave-No-Trace and left my campsites looking undisturbed.


Trail outside Pearisburg, VA
Appalachian Trail north of Pearisburg, VA

There are several methods long-distance hikers use to resupply on their hikes.

  1. Resupply Boxes – Many hikers send themselves boxes. This typically ensures supplies in remote locations and resupply boxes support a healthier diet. Post offices will hold boxes for 30 days unless they state differently if you include GENERAL DELIVERY in the address.
  2. Towns – May of the towns along long-distance trails have grocery stores. Shopping in town allows for various foods since tastes will change and support the community you are hiking through.
  3. Combination – Combining boxes is also a common method.

I used a combination of boxes and shopping in town. I would typically ship my dinners since I know what I like to eat after years of backpacking and supplement these with breakfast, snacks, and lunches that I purchased in town.

Types of Food

Food varies when backpacking, and long-distance backpacking is no exception. How you prepare your food also varies on the trail between hot food and cold food.

Cold Soaking

I often use a method called cold-soaking. This includes adding water to your dried food and allowing it to soak while I hike. When I stopped to eat dinner, the food was ready. Options are more limited with cold soaking, but I often prefer not bothering with a stove and fuel, and cold soaking also minimizes cooking odors.

Hot Food

The most common method for food preparation is cooking or rehydrating with boiling water. Hot food also allows for much greater variation in the foods you make. You can carry fresh foods or use dehydrated and freeze-dried foods to which you must add boiling water.

What I Eat

When I go on long-distance hikes, I take a combination of approaches to food. On the AT, I cold-soaked my food for most of the trail. I enjoy cooking but quickly get tired of rehydrated food.

Breakfast usually includes oatmeal, nuts, dried fruit, and Breakfast Essentials soaked in a Ziploc bag. I would either soak them overnight and drink them in the morning or if I used instant oats, I would prepare them in the morning when I woke up and drink them right before I left camp.

In one section, I added the infamous high-caloric Honey Bun, and I threw up every morning after eating one, four mornings in a row. I switched to Hostess Dunkin Sticks, and my stomach seemed to handle these better.

Lunch and snacks were mostly snacks like nuts, trail mix, fruit, hummus with flatbread, protein bars, and nut butter. I typically try to avoid sugary snacks that don’t provide longer-term energy.

Dinner included freeze-dried beans, cheese, ramen, cous cous, wraps, chicken packs, tuna packets, Stovetop stuffing, different sauce packets, fresh fruits and veggies for the first few days, etc. My ramen was the noodle bowls with dried veggies and small packets of sauces. I like these better than regular Ramen.

I always carry fresh food and sandwiches out of town and add onions, avocado, etc., to my food and wraps.


Appalachian Trail near Tinker Cliffs outside Daleville
View near Tinker Cliffs – VA

There were a lot of challenges on this Appalachian Trail hike. I’ve backpacked all over the country and always found the AT one of the hardest trails, and this past thru-hike was no exception.

Lymes Disease

Lyme disease is caused by the bite of a Deer tick, and I have probably been bitten hundreds of times over the years. This year, my luck ran out, and Lyme caught up with me.

In southern Vermont, I began to feel sluggish and have headaches. I attributed this to dehydration until I passed out one morning leaving the Cookie Lady’s house where I had camped. I went to the hospital and was tested, but the results were negative.

The rest of the hike was hard, but I assumed it was because I was getting older. I had chronic fatigue and was always tired, and finishing the hike through VT, NH, and ME was difficult. I returned home and crashed for about three weeks, but I never really felt better.

A couple of months later, my left leg began hurting and swelled up to the point that I could not walk on it. The pain was severe, and I went through four rounds of antibiotics as Doctors tried to figure out what was wrong.

Finally, I was diagnosed with Lyme, and the Doctor told me that based on test results, I had probably had it more than once, including recently. I was immediately put on antibiotics again and began feeling better. It took several months, but I felt like I had fully recovered by Spring.

I now spray all my clothes with Permethrin and use bug spray religiously. I also wear long-sleeve shirts and check myself thoroughly after hiking.


Appalachian Trail shelter in Virginia
Appalachian Trail Shelter – VA

Since I started in February, the beginning of the trail was very cold, and I would not start that early again. Between Springer Mountain and Erwin, TN, I lost over 20 pounds as my body worked hard to stay warm. Shortly after, I got a second quilt and quickly gained back half the weight.

Vermont had what some called 100-year floods just after I passed through, and streams and rivers in northern VT and southern NH were swollen and dangerous. The rain seemed never to stop, and hikers skipped half of Maine to avoid swollen streams and get to Katahdin. Unfortunately, a hiker died attempting to cross a stream in Vermont.

I did not want to skip Maine or risk my life, so I took several weeks off and then continued the hike where I left off in Gorham, NH. This was a good decision, and I finished the rest of the hike with mostly nice weather.

Hardest States & Terrain

NH and Maine were difficult states for me with Lyme, but even without Lyme, I consider these the two hardest states. I think southern Maine is harder than the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and I would probably vote for southern Maine as the hardest section of the Appalachian Trail.

Georgia is a tough state if you are starting the trail. The big mountains, elevation gains, and losses are tough on fledgling trail legs. Couple that with volatile Spring weather in the southern Appalachians combined with figuring out your gear, fuel, miles, etc., and Georgia is a hard state for hikers just beginning their hike.


View from Blood Moutain on the Appalachian Trail
View from Blood Mountain – GA

Although the Appalachian Trail is a tough trail, the rewards outweigh the challenges and are made all that more satisfying by the challenges you overcome.

The people, community, mountains, sunsets, sunrises, chasing Spring, striding into Fall—the Appalachian Trail journey will capture your soul and never let it go. The sense of accomplishment you feel as your confidence grows beyond what you thought were your limits is something I will continue reaching for throughout my life.

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About the author

Ellie Thomas

Survival-Mastery reflects my love of the outdoors and having the skills to take care of myself in the wilderness and in worst-case scenarios. I grew up in the southeast backpacking, camping, and fishing, and I have hiked and backpacked over 30,000 miles in the US. My background and career for the past 30 years has been in operations and construction and I enjoy learning and DIY projects.


  • thru-hiking isn’t for everyone. It requires a lot of preparation, both physically and mentally. You would need to be in good shape and be able to handle the rigors of the trail. You’d also need to be comfortable being self-sufficient for long periods of time.

    • I agree, but a lot depends on the trail. Having hiked many long distance trails, I’ve met many hikers that were not in shape, but took their time, got in shape as they hiked, and finished their thru-hikes. As you mentioned, being mentally prepared is a large component of thru-hikes.

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